Sunday, August 22, 2010

Vogue (Caution: feeling unusually reactionary today)

Many of the titles reviewed by Steven Heller in this Sunday's Book Review (all related in some way to graphic design) make the "I want that!" list. What struck me enough to blurg here, though, was one of his comments on the facsimile republishing of THE FIRST SIX BOOKS OF THE ELEMENTS OF EUCLID: In Which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols Are Used Instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners. Oliver Byrne's text (or graphic language, rather) employs rebus illustrations to elaborate on the concepts of Euclidean geometry with predictable 1847 primary-chrome, two-dimensional charm. Heller's comment:

"Given its 'less is more' layout and primary-color palette — red, blue, yellow, black — THE FIRST SIX BOOKS OF THE ELEMENTS OF EUCLID... prefigures the art and design of 20th-century avant-garde movements. Yet although the illustration on the title page is the spitting image of a de Stijl and Bauhaus design, the mid-19th-­century publishing date disqualifies it from being 'modern' in the Museum of Modern Art sense of the word."

Far from critiquing those two radically minimalist visual art movements, the reviewer subtly refers to the peculiarly "modern" conceptual fetish for recycled content that, in a panoramic inhale, cannot be located without a hot "new" label denoting the current aesthetic fashion. (Heller also shares my obnoxious compulsion for quotation marks without specific indication of an actual source). Which leads me to an old, but as yet unsated complaint: the inundatingly prevalent 20th century habit of unnecessary (and only sometimes deserved) nomineering—sorry, seemed apt—, especially by Modern avant-gardists who by mid-century (though pre-dated, I think, by de Saussurean linguistics, but certainly by Wittgenstein) made such a stink about the imposing, capitalist ethos of NAMING, and yet were often themselves strong proponents, if not originators, of arguably undue classifications; from art coteries, to genre, to poetic practices, concepts, etc. I can appreciate Charles Bernstein's "Nude Formalism" as (I think) a satiric usage, but his own self-promoting "radical legibility" lines up right alongside other neologisms that (rather than draw attention to the thing/idea in question) stand vertically as monumental signposts of and for themselves: Concrete poetry (understood, but did George Herbert need a title to elucidate his typographical innovation?); the Objectivists (whose practices I esteem to Stein-esque heights, but who obviously knew racketeering); the Beats (and Kerouac never did hear the end of it); Language Poetry (at least not an audacious title for this disparate group of writers, though it's somehow considered distinct from the practices of Stein). I don't mean to rail against the clutter of conceptual mythologies and strikingly similar/overlapping -isms, as though they just plain bother me. If artists want to corral an audience through the capitalist marketing practice of ostentatious packaging, that's fine, so long as they recognize their complicit role in product/service pandering. But save the radical-aversion-to-capital-interests-and-the-overdetermined-object bit. It isn't parody without an object to inveigh. It's cute is what it is. Cute enough to fetishize, to sell. And I don't mean dollars, but sensibility. (The battle lines are drawn in the surrounding ethos, aren't they?). Help me out, name-manufacturers: why?

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